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Educator: Don't prep for tests; learn
Classroom time helps raise ACT scores, college success, expert maintains
By Kerry Lester | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 3/3/2008 12:01 AM

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Schools that spend less time on test prep and more time on instruction have better ACT scores.

That assessment comes from Elaine Allensworth, co-director at the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Allensworth spoke recently to the Alliance for College Readiness, a partnership between Elgin Community College and its feeder high schools. The educators gathered to learn about the college readiness lessons developed in the Chicago Public Schools.

The alliance, formed 18 months ago, wants to redefine college readiness.

Tracking middle-schoolers through high school and into college, Allensworth's group found Chicago Public Schools face two major challenges: low graduation rates and weak ACT scores.

"Graduation is a predictable event," Allensworth said. "We've found we can predict about 80 percent of graduates and nongraduates correctly by looking at their freshman course performance."

Course performance, she said, is a much more powerful predictor than any other background predictor, including race, gender, mobility or Illinois Standards Achievement Test, or ISAT, test scores.

"The key to course performance is coming to class and doing the work," she said. "It's not about students' academic skills in the end. It's about getting them to put in the effort."

Freshmen who miss 10 days of class per semester flunk, Allensworth said, on average at least two classes -- no matter whether they arrive in high school with high or low test scores on the ISAT.

Following students into their junior year of high school, low ACT scores result from test prep taking away from course instruction.

"Schools who spend less time on ACT test prep and more time on instruction have better scores," Allensworth said. Class time prep for the WorkKeys portion of the Prairie State Achievement Exam is also found to have a direct effect on low ACT scores, she said.

"Students and teachers both see preparing for the ACT totally different from the work they're doing in their classes. All this is taking time away from instruction --which most matters on the test."

Compounding the problem is the structure of the ACT. "It doesn't match the structure of high school courses," she said.

Despite the tremendous amount of importance placed on the ACT, Allensworth said, course grades are the best predictor of how students will do in college.

"In Chicago schools, we've found only students with a B average or better have more than a 50 percent chance of getting a college degree," she said.

"People tend to think that grades are arbitrary. But if grades are a better predictor of college performance than standardized test scores, they must be reliable," she said.